Jul 27, 2012

Revolution, Global Science, Espionage, and Cooperation: Russian-Western Nuclear Interaction

written by Keith Blasing

Part 3: Rounding Up the Loose Nukes after the Cold War

The last part focused on the political problem faced by the US and the USSR in trying to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons while at the same time ensuring that the relatively safe stalemate of détente was maintained. Just as a significant step was taken in the signing of the START treaty in 1991, the whole equation changed with the collapse of the USSR, the marginalization of Gorbachev, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin as the leader of the new Russian Federation. Fortunately, the political question was made simpler when all of the nuclear weapons successor states besides Russia agreed to become signatories to the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states and cede their nuclear weapons to Russia. The Nunn-Lugar act in 1991 pledged US support for military-to-military cooperation to account for and secure Russian nuclear weapons. 

But weapons are only one part of the nuclear picture and, as the Chernobyl accident in 1986 showed all too clearly, civilian nuclear power can also cause major damage if safety and security measures are not taken seriously enough. As relations improved between Russia and the US after the end of the Cold War, a new emphasis began to arise on ensuring that the nuclear energy complex in the former Soviet Union was as safe as possible from both another Chernobyl-style accident and from threats posed by “rogue states” that might wish to obtain nuclear material and technology to build weapons. These concerns led to government-to-government and lab-to-lab cooperation between the US DOE and the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry as early as 1993 to address nuclear material protection, control, and accounting (MPC&A) upgrades at a number of civilian nuclear sites in Russia and the former Soviet Union. These programs have led to advances in equipment and techniques for security and accounting of nuclear material at a number of sites throughout Russia and Ukraine.

Despite an up-and-down relationship at the top levels and growing US concerns about the effect of the Putin administration on Russia’s fragile democracy, the MPC&A cooperation program has continued, along with a number of other significant agreements. The MPC&A projects have entered a phase of transition from US support of Russian projects to joint support and eventually, so the plan goes, an equal partnership to ensure control and accounting of nuclear materials at civilian sites. Meanwhile, the first START treaty expired in 2009, its interim extension (SORT) was due to expire in 2012, and negotiations were conducted for what has come to be called the New START. This Treaty was ratified by both the US and Russia in 2010. Its terms call for significant reductions over a ten-year period in deployed strategic weapons and delivery systems, though it does not address stockpiled weapons or tactical weapons.

The future of Russian interactions with the US and Western Europe, including in the nuclear sphere, is uncertain as always. In the area of nuclear weapons, Russian resistance to a missile defense program in Western Europe and the desire of Western countries to see a reduction in Russia’s tactical weapons are points that will require a good deal of attention. With regard to civilian nuclear material, it remains to be seen whether the upgrades supported by the US since 1993 will remain sustainable once the Russian side is fully responsible for them. If the past 100 years of nuclear interaction between Russia and the West is any indication, the future will likely involve rapid technological progress through international competition, with political systems playing catch-up as they try to ensure that the new technologies do not unduly threaten our safety and security.

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